By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Police should worry more about themselves. Officers, along with judges and prosecutors, are becoming more of a target to identity thieves, not because officers are rich, but because crooks hate them.
"[Thieves] are going out and finding a judge who put a brother or sister in jail, and they're finding his information, and they get him back," says Neal. "They feel that they're a bigger target because they're out there trying to protect and serve and criminals say, 'Watch what I'm going to do to you.' We hear from detectives and agents saying, 'What can we do to better protect law enforcement? We would pay whatever it was, or take whatever steps are out there, but we need to make sure our information can't be accessed."
The problem is, members of law enforcement are no better than the general public at keeping sensitive identifying information private.
Jeri Yenne, the district attorney in Brazoria County, found out she had her identity stolen this year when she went to buy a car for her son before he left for college. The dealer told her she hadn't been paying on the two cars she bought the year before, and Yenne thought he was joking.
"The tools a criminal needs to commit this type of crime, because of the times we live in, it's just too easily accessible," Manzo says. "We need to find a way to restrict access to personal information, but I don't know if that's even something we want as consumers. It would be inconvenient."
He adds, "We're too used to having things readily available at the snap of a finger. You can open up a credit account in a store within two minutes. We'd have to restrict access to information, and I don't know if that is the price the public is ready to bear."
Kevin Wehner found out he had his identity stolen a few years back after he started getting letters about cars that he had never bought. As it turned out, a man named Shawn Labeet had used Wehner's identity for a lot more than that.
According to an article in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Labeet had been wanted by Miami police for five years for shooting his girlfriend, so he knew he couldn't pass a background check when he wanted to buy another gun. But using Wehner's ID in 2006, he bought six high-powered rifles and three pistols.
Labeet used one of those rifles, an AK-47, to kill a Miami police officer and shoot three others during a traffic stop in 2007. He escaped from the scene in his Pontiac Vibe, and investigators later found Wehner's driver's license in the car and named Wehner as the suspected cop killer.
Police launched a massive manhunt, and when Wehner saw a television news report that he was the focus, he immediately called police and explained it wasn't him. Officers killed Labeet a few hours later in a Miami apartment complex.
Identity thieves are often painted as white-collar computer whizzes, but more often than not, they're violent criminals.
"With very few exceptions, every person we arrest — nine out of ten — is almost always involved in drugs — use or possession or sales — and they have prior convictions for burglaries, robberies and assaults," Manzo says. "We're not dealing with specialists."
A large picture hangs in Manzo's downtown office showing rifles, grenades, bullets, banana clips and bulletproof vests that were seized during an arrest made by Manzo's unit near the University of Houston. The officers were serving a warrant for identity theft and counterfeit checks.
One of the most active criminal organizations involved in identity theft in the state is the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, a spin-off of the Aryan Brotherhood, a white-separatist, neo-Nazi prison gang that famously rejected Charles Manson and is identified today by the Southern Poverty Law Center as "the most notorious, powerful and violent prison gang in America."
The most recent arrest came in May of this year after investigators tied a member of the gang to about 17,000 stolen credit card numbers from registrations at the Emily Morgan Hotel, a $300-a-night hotel in San Antonio. The man arrested, 24-year-old Allen Brietzke, was already a suspect in the murder of a man who police found near the Guadalupe River without his hands or head, but he was never indicted on that charge.
During the summer of 2008, police busted a meth ring in Amarillo after arresting three members of the Aryan gang for possession of fake driver's licenses, personal checks, credit cards and other random identification cards.
In one of the worst cases, a few days after Thanksgiving in 2005, Fort Worth police raided the mobile home of an Aryan gang member who had been connected to "a major identity theft ring," according to an article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. One of the officers kicked in a bedroom door and was shot in the head and killed.
Even if the theft involves a violent criminal, Manzo says, the public just doesn't care until it happens to them. And when it does, victims expect an easy resolution.